The Virtues of Christmas

By: Grace Burrowes

Chapter One

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My Dearest Brenner,

You will forgive a friend of long-standing for not using your newly acquired honorific. Old habits die hard, though I suppose even an Irish barony is due an occasional nod. In ten or twenty years, perhaps, I will acquire the knack of addressing you as my lord. Perhaps not. In any case, I hope this letter finds you well and anticipating the holidays—or the holiday punch—with much joy.

The time has come for you to repay that small favor I did you several years ago—the favor that resulted in you eluding capture, torture, and death at the hands of our then-enemies. My request is laughably simple to accomplish for a man of your skills, which is fortunate, for the matter has become urgent. My solicitors tell me I’m in want of a wealthy wife. One must approach the matrimonial lists confident that no stain will mar one’s bachelor escutcheon in the eyes of prospective in-laws.

Did I ever tell you that I deserve sole credit for raising the celebrated Henrietta Whitlow from the status of bumbling housemaid to consort of dukes and nabobs? The tale impresses even me, who more or less wrote it…

Henrietta Whitlow—a bumpkin’s name, of a certainty—joined my domestic staff shortly after I came down from university. A more shy, unworldly, backward creature you never met. She took pride in blacking the andirons and in polishing the candlesticks. She took pride in shining the windows until every parlor reeked of vinegar. She took a painful degree of pride in every domestic chore imaginable, but no pride whatsoever in herself. I changed all of that, though it was a thankless and tedious chore…

“I tell you, John Coachman, there is no room at this inn!” The innkeeper banged a palm on the counter, as if knocking down goods at auction.

The coachman, a substantial specimen of middle years, leaned forward so he was nose to nose with the innkeeper.

“Your stable is nearly empty,” he said, a Scots burr in every syllable. “Your common room boasts exactly one gentleman awaiting a meal, and you will find accommodations for my lady.”

Lord Michael Brenner, Baron Angelford, the gentleman in question, sat before the common’s bow window, which was close enough to the foyer that he heard every word of the argument between the coachman and the innkeeper. Beyond the window, an enormous traveling coach with spanking yellow wheels and four matched chestnuts stood in the yard. The horses’ breath blew white in the frigid air, and one of the wheelers stomped a hoof against frozen ground.

No crest on the coach door, but considerable fine luggage lashed to the roof. Why would an innkeeper with rooms aplenty turn away a wealthy customer?

“I’m expecting other parties,” the innkeeper said. “Decent folk who expect decent accommodations.”

A woman emerged from the coach. She was attired in a brown velvet cloak with a cream wool scarf about her neck and ears. She was tall and, based on her nimble descent, young. The second woman, a shorter, rounder specimen in a gray cloak, emerged more slowly and teetered to the ground on the arm of a footman.

What self-respecting innkeeper refused accommodations to two women, at least one of whom was quite well-to-do? Michael waited for a drunken lordling or two to stagger from the coach, or one of London’s more notorious gamblers—he knew them all—but the footman closed the coach door.

The taller woman removed her scarf and wrapped it about her companion. Michael caught a glimpse of flaming red hair before the awning over the inn’s front door obscured the women from view.

Ah, well then. The puzzle began to make sense.

“If you’re expecting other parties,” the coachman said, “they won’t be underfoot until sundown. My lady needs a room for only a few hours, while I find a blacksmith to reset a shoe on my off-side leader.”

“My guests might arrive at any moment,” the innkeeper shot back. “The sky promises snow, and I don’t give reserved rooms away.”

The front door opened, an eddy of cold air reaching even into the common room.

“He’s being difficult, ma’am,” the coachman said to the red-haired woman. “I’ll make the cheating blighter see reason.”

“Mr. Murphy’s difficult demeanor is one of the reliable institutions on this delightful route,” the lady said. “Rather like the potholes and not quite as inconvenient as the highwaymen. Fortunately, Mrs. Murphy’s excellent housekeeping is equally trustworthy. How much, Mr. Murphy?”

The woman’s tone was cultured and amused, but also just a shade too low, a touch too knowing. Had the common been full of men, every one of them would have eavesdropped on the conversation because her voice was that alluring.